New Delhi’s New Central Vista Plan Gives Acidity to Modi Haters

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There is controversy about Hindustan Times refusing to publish historian Ram Guha‘s weekly column, based on which Guha has chosen to discontinue his column. The Wire, perceived by many to be an anti-Modi website, has published Guha’s article.

Guha writes: In a two-part article published in Newslaundry, journalist Alpana Kishore subjected the project to redesign Delhi’s Central Vista to critical scrutiny. The first part asked: “Why is redeveloping Central Vista a bigger priority than fixing the capital’s catastrophic air pollution or plummeting life expectancy?” In answering this, Kishore focused on one key element in the project: the provision for a grand new house for the prime minister, on Rajpath. Such self-indulgence, she argued, may be common in dictatorships, but was inappropriate for a Republic. If one thinks of Delhi as akin to London or Berlin, a capital of a democracy, then, argues Kishore, spending hundreds of crores “on a second house for the PM ahead of fixing Delhi’s pressing problems like its catastrophic air pollution which causes 80 deaths per day and 45% of all premature deaths is a spectacularly insensitive move that puts a powerful elite firmly above the people’s good. On the other hand, if we are in the Beijing-Pyongyang-Moscow axis where citizens are passive spectators, it is absolutely normal.”

My response to Kishore and Guha: How do you know it is a “grand” house? What percentage of the total project cost (for the Central Vista) will be spent on this ‘so-called’ grand house? Do you know? The PM’s current residential complex at Lok Kalyan Marg will definitely be used for some other activity – so it is wrong to call it a second house. I’m pretty sure even you both know that. Lal Bahadur Shastri chose 10, Janpath as his official residence, though Nehru had lived at Teen Murti Bhawan as PM. Indira Gandhi chose 1, Safdarjung Road. Rajiv Gandhi chose 7, Race Course Road (now 7, Lok Kalyan Marg). You believe it was OK for these three former PMs as they were from the Congress party? But a BJP man can’t, right? Because you are against whatever BJP stands for??? Also, it is OK for Sonia Gandhi to reside in a 163,475 square foot residence (10, Janpath), which is larger than the 151,845 square foot PM’s residence, correct? Despite the fact that her son Rahul and her daughter Priyanka don’t live in the same house. Rahul himself lives in a 54,085 square foot house. Modi knows it is highly unlikely for a new PM’s residence to be ready before May 2022, so why would he wait 8 years to get a “grand new house”? No ma’am, no sir, this has nothing to do with a grand house – it’s all because you hate Modi.

Guha continues: The second part of Kishore’s article focused on the process by which the project was awarded: a process marked by secrecy and subterfuge, ending in the contract going to a Gujarat architecture firm known to be particularly close to the PM. This firm’s previous projects, wrote Kishore, had depended for their execution “upon the removal of “obstacles” like due process, impact assessments, public consultation, and well-established global best practices”. The firm’s past record, in sum, was one of consistently manifesting “an innate disrespect for the citizen”.

My response to Alpana Kishore and Ram Guha: The firm in question – HCP – was in existence for 41 years (yes, 41 years) before Modi became CM of Gujarat in October 2001. HCP designed the Reserve Bank of India’s Ahmedabad Office in 1971, when Hitendra Desai of Congress was Gujarat CM and Indira Gandhi-appointed Sarukkai Jagannathan was RBI Governor. In 1985, HCP designed the Entrepreneurship Development Institute of India, when Rajiv Gandhi was PM. It won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1992. In 1986, HCP designed the refurbishment of the Eden Gardens cricket stadium in Calcutta, when there was a Communist (Left Front) government in the state. In 1992, HCP designed the Gujarat High Court when Chimanbhai Patel of Janata Dal was Gujarat CM. In 1994, HCP designed the CG Road redevelopment project in Ahmedabad, when Chhabildas Mehta of Congress was Gujarat CM. Should I go on?

Guha continues: In concluding her two-part essay, Kishore remarked: “The biggest irony remains that a PM from the humblest of backgrounds should yearn for a house on Rajpath, no less, to endorse his vision of personal greatness and legacy. Would Emmanuel Macron (President of France) demand and, more importantly, get a house on the Champs Elysées? Can even Trump order himself a second home on the Mall?

My response to Kishore and Guha: It is surprising that senior authors and journalists like you don’t do research on the subjects you write about – or is it that you know the truth but choose to hide it? The residence of the President of France is the 120,330 square foot “Élysée Palace” which is located only 500 metres from the Champs-Élysées. Besides, with the tens of thousands of tourists and shoppers visiting the Champs-Élysées daily, it would be a nightmare to provide security for a house on that street. The French President also has the use of other official residences, including the “Fort de Brégançon” off the French Riviera near Marseille and the “La Lanterne”, a hunting lodge in Versailles which is just a 35-minute drive from the Élysée Palace. Should Modi get a beach mansion in Goa and a hunting lodge in Uttarakhand as his second and third residences, instead of a “second” house in Delhi, as you have accused him of? I’m only asking since Ms.Kishore mentioned Emmanuel Macron. Now let me come to Trump. The US President already has a second home. It is a 200-acre country retreat called “Camp David“. And even though it’s only 103 km from The White House (the official residence at Washington, D.C.), the US President mostly flies there on not one, but three (and sometimes up to five) helicopters named as “Marine One”, the rest serving as decoys. Twenty-three new ones have been ordered by Trump, each costing about Rs 1630 crore. That’s just Rs 37,500 crore for presidential helicopters (not that he doesn’t have 35 already), almost double the cost of the New Central Vista project.

Guha goes on: I share her concerns entirely. This project has been pushed through without wider consultation with the public, or even with domain experts in architecture and urban planning.

My response: HCP is a domain expert in architecture and urban planning.

Guha adds: In fact, as one who has seen the work of HCP in Ahmedabad at first-hand, I have an additional concern: that they are utterly indifferent to history and heritage. A prime example of this was their design of a second campus for the Indian Institute of Ahmedabad. The original IIM-A campus, designed by Louis Kahn, beautifully blends traditional and modern practices, using red brick, open windows, and courtyards. It is a joy to see, walk through, study and teach in. Its successor is cold and soulless, built entirely of concrete; those assigned offices there yearn for a transfer to the original and much more welcoming campus.

My response: Most people don’t share your opinion, Mr. Guha. Besides, you’re supposed to be a historian, not an expert on architecture.

Guha continues: The PM’s own justification of the project is that it was to mark not a personal but a national milestone – the 75th anniversary of Indian independence. This is disingenuous, because past anniversaries overseen by past PMs had not called for such a spectacular extravaganza. Both the 25th and 50th anniversaries of independence had been suitably marked, by a special session of parliament. Apparently, what was good enough for Indira Gandhi and I.K. Gujral wouldn’t quite do for Narendra Modi.

My response: Are you comparing PM Modi (ARGUABLY the best PM India has had) with I.K. Gujral (ARGUABLY the worst)? And special sessions of parliament are suitable celebrations of important milestones such as the 25th and 50th anniversary of our independence? C’mon, who are you kidding? Besides, why does Modi need to copy either Indira Gandhi or I.K. Gujral? He’s someone who has done many things for the first time by any Indian PM. Have you read “The Promise of India” by Dr. Jaimini Bhagwati, one of India’s most respected economists and foreign policy experts? He gives an unbiased opinion on all our 14 PMs, and the book has been appreciated by many respectable people in India.

Guha goes on to say: To my mind, the Modi government’s redesign of New Delhi brings to mind not so much living Communist autocrats as it does some dead African despots. It is the sort of vanity project, designed to perpetuate the ruler’s immortality, that Felix Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast and Jean Bédel-Bokassa of the Central African Republic once inflicted on their own countries.

Brazil built a whole new capital city (Brasilia) in 1960. Malaysia built Putrajaya in 2001, where most ministries are located, though the official capital is still Kuala Lumpur. In August 2019, Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced that construction of the future capital in the East Kalimantan province will commence in 2020. South Korea began construction of its new capital, Sejong City in 2007, with some ministries relocating from Seoul in 2012. Complete relocation of the capital is expected by 2030. Egypt is building a new capital 45 km East of Cairo. Australia built a new Parliament House in its capital Canberra in 1988. In 2013, Thailand started constructing a new Parliament House and the construction is almost complete. Are these countries also like the Ivory Coast or the Central African Republic, Mr. Guha?

In India, Chandra Babu Naidu had started building a whole new capital city (Amravati) for Andhra Pradesh for over Rs 55,000 crore, before he was voted out of power in 2019. In 1994, Rajasthan’s BJP government started construction of a new Assembly building. It was completed in 2001. In 2005, the Congress government in Karnataka built a replica of the old Assembly building in Bangalore to fit a growing employee strength. In 2012, H.D. Kumaraswamy (a partner of Congress) started construction of a new Assembly building in Belagavi (Belgaum), which was completed at a cost of almost Rs 500 crore in 2012. Why did Karnataka have to build a second capital? Tamil Nadu‘s DMK (another partner of Congress) government built a new Assembly building in 2010 for Rs 1200 crore, which was inaugurated by Dr Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. Rs 3 crore was spent just for constructing a temporary dome for the inauguration. After taking over as CM in 2011, Jayalalithaa converted the under construction building to a hospital-cum-medical college. In 2013, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee started a Rs 350 crore project to give a facelift to the Colonial-era State Secretariat, Writers’ Building. She shifted the Secretariat to a ‘temporary’ building called Nabanna, but continues to operate from there almost 7 years later. Telangana CM K. Chandrashekar Rao built a Rs 38 crore residence-cum-office on a 9-acre plot in Hyderabad in 2016. He is also building new Assembly and Secretariat buildings at a cost of over Rs 500 crore. in 2016, then Uttar Pradesh CM Akhilesh Yadav (yet another partner of Congress) inaugurated a Rs 602 crore new Secretariat building at Lucknow. In 2019, Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik inaugurated a new Secretariat building at Bhubaneswar. All of these are perhaps justified, Mr. Guha, except Rajasthan, of course, right?

Guha continues: Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit us, this expensive redesign of the core of the national capital seemed a wasteful and self-indulgent exercise. It has now become much more so. For, an economy that was already flailing has been brought to the brink by the pandemic. The ill-planned lockdown has led to enormous human suffering. Working-class Indians, already living on the edge, are now faced with utter destitution. As many economists have argued, the millions of poor Indians rendered poorer by this crisis urgently need financial support from the Central government. Why can’t the funds currently allocated to the Central Vista scheme – estimated at Rs 20,000 crore and counting – be diverted to help ameliorate their condition? Politically, the burden of this economic, social and humanitarian crisis is being borne by the states. They desperately need money – not least, the money the Centre already owes them. A staggering Rs 30,000 crore are still due to the states from the Centre as their share of GST revenues. Why does this still remain unpaid, while the Central Vista project has been sanctioned and a schedule for its tendering announced? It will be at least a year – probably longer – before the economy can begin to fitfully recover. The restoration of the social fabric may take even longer. Altogether, the country may take at least five, more likely ten, years before it can return to where it was before COVID-19 came to our shores. Surely the moral, political and intellectual energies of our leaders must be devoted above all to this economic and social rebuilding. In his speeches to the nation since the pandemic broke, the prime minister has repeatedly asked Indians to sacrifice – sacrifice their time, their jobs, their lifestyles, their human and cultural tendency to be gregarious. Now citizens must ask the prime minister to sacrifice something for the nation as well. His project to redesign Central Vista was always controversial. It is now absolutely untenable. He should drop it.

My answers:

(1) Rs 20,000 crore is not wasteful or self-indulgent by any stretch of imagination. The Central Government shells out Rs 1,000 crore as rent every year, so the investment in the New Central Vista will be made up by just the rental savings alone. In addition, there will be revenue from the three museums that will be built at the existing Parliament House, North Block and South Block. Add to that fuel savings, as approximately 100,000 government employees will be working almost at a walking distance with each other, compared to just 35,000 now. It is also likely that there will be a shuttle between all the offices. And what is the cost of improved efficiency?

(2) India’s lockdown was much better planned than most developed nations.

(3) Diverting just Rs 20,000 crore will not help the millions of poor Indians rendered poorer by COVID-19. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has already announced (23 days before Mr Guha wanted Hindustan Times to publish his article) a Rs 1.7 lakh crore relief package to alleviate the financial pain faced by migrant workers, farmers, urban and rural poor and women. This is 8.5 times the Central Vista redevelopment budget. In addition, the Modi government is providing 5kg of FREE wheat or rice each month to 800 million people for the next three months over and above the 5kg they already get. Also, Doctors, Asha workers, paramedics, sanitation workers, nurses will be provided medical insurance cover of Rs 50 lakh per person. And I am sure there’s more to come.

(4) Development cannot come to a standstill because of a pandemic that has taken 560 lives in 40 days, in a country where 27,600 people die every day as it is, without the pandemic. There are many reasons why the Central Vista redevelopment is long overdue. Some of them are mentioned below.

(5) The strength of the Lok Sabha has to be increased (from the current 545 members) to reflect the 143 crore population in 2024. The last increase was done in 1977, when India’s population was 65 crore. “If British can have 650 parliamentarians, Canada 443 and US 535 why can’t we have 1000? ” asked former President Pranab Mukherjee in December 2019. He is not a BJP politician, but spent most of his career in the Congress party. The Lok Sabha hall in the New Parliament (see Pic) will accommodate 900-1000 members.

(6) The demolished buildings (including Shastri Bhawan, Nirman Bhawan, Krishi Bhawan, Vayu Bhawan, Lok Nayak Bhawan) will give way to 8-10 new seven-storeyed buildings comprising a Central Secretariat. Many of these old buildings that house ministries are in a bad shape and frequently have fires due to faulty electrical wiring. Most of them also do not have sufficient parking space.

(7) Architect and conservation consultant AG Krishna Menon wrote in the news website The Print on 8 March that the BJP wants to ‘erase’ colonial heritage. Why should we keep ‘colonial’ heritage 75 years after independence, Mr. Menon? Is the British Raj something for us to cherish? He has also criticised the project by inferring that it does not take care of (ecological) conservation. There is no basis for this criticism. Rather than occupying more space, the New Central Vista will free up about 75 acres for public use. A 75-acre National Biodiversity Arboretum has been planned behind Rashtrapati Bhavan, which will have collections of plants from different climatic zones of India. All buildings will have access to the underground metro with pedestrian subways, and will have ample underground parking spaces. This will reduce the carbon footprint from the existing Lutyens Zone of Delhi and will also reduce pollution.

To all other critics of the project, I say this – why shouldn’t a New (modern) India have a New Capital? Why should a major long-term development project be stopped due to a disease that is not permanent? Why does your hatred of Modi make you criticize even such things that will make India look good in front of the whole world and even make most Indians proud?

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